Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Epiphany 2A: Isaiah 49:1-7 and 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
While many of us like to poke fun at St. Paul for his run on sentences seemingly joined together more by semi-colon than by topic and while others like to dismiss Paul out of hand for the apparent sexism in his letters, I think we serve ourselves well to listen to his words with open minds and open hearts – not uncritically, but not dismissively either (yes, that was one sentence - modeled after Paul). Today’s second reading comes from the introduction of one of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth. It is an introduction filled with praise for the good people of Corinth – they are “sanctified in Christ Jesus” they are “called to be saints,” they are “in every way . . . enriched in [Christ Jesus], in speech and knowledge of every kind” and they “are not lacking in any spiritual gift.” That’s so typical of Paul – offering words of encouragement to the early Church, extending those words of encouragement to you and to me today.
But I want to put Paul’s praise and encouragement into a larger context. The church in Corinth was struggling. One of the biggest challenges was the economic disparity among its members. Only those with money could decide matters in court. Only those with homes and staff large enough could host the church and provide a place for its celebration of the Lord’s supper – church buildings did not yet exist. And, only those who were wealthy could arrive at dinners early enough to eat the best food and get drunk before the other, less fortunate ones could arrive. And these struggles – between the haves and the have nots, between rich and poor – were the reason for Paul’s letter. So, although the introduction is filled with praise and encouragement, the letter goes on to offer a pretty severe critique and a persuasive argument to shape up and to live according to the faith they profess with their lips and the faith God has placed in their hearts.
If we are to hear Paul’s words today, we must be willing to hear both the good – praise and a encouragement – and the bad – critique and invitation to change. By reminding the Corinthians that they are “sanctified in Christ Jesus” and “called to be saints,” by telling them, “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift,” he is reminding them that they have everything they need within themselves to do the right thing. Because those very gifts come not from human hands but from Christ Jesus. God has given them – and us – everything we need to do God’s will.
And if ever there was a time when our world needs the Church to do God’s will it is now. Many mainline churches – Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalians – have spent the last decades deeply mired in debates on women’s ordination and the standing of persons in our communities based on sexual orientation and sexual identity. And please do not misunderstand me, because I think these are important issues and issues which are very much the purview of the churches to figure out. BUT, while we have been struggling with these issues of “who’s in” and “who’s out,” the Religious Right has taken the opportunity to claim the public stage. Emerging in the late 1970s , the Christian Right – really a group of loosely networked political actors, religious organizations and political lobbyists – made a broad-based religious appeal to Americans that emphasized so-called traditional family values, championed free-market economics and criticized secular trends in American culture. There was a temporary decline of the Religious Right in the late 1980s and into the 90s but a loud minority within the Religious Right persisted and continues to shape policy discussions, drive voter turnout and influence religious and political life in the United States. The movement, not surprisingly based on its agenda, mostly mobilized white, evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. And while they were taking up space on the airwaves, literally broadcasting their voice across America, most of the mainline denominations – ours included - were fighting internal battles and, as a result, largely absent from the public arena. Our battles may not have been that of the church in Corinth – rich vs. poor; but, like the early church in Corinth, our battles have kept us so occupied that we have a tendency to forget who we are and whose we are, a tendency to forget that we are “sanctified in Christ Jesus,” “called to be saints” and “not lacking in any spiritual gift.”
And so today is our moment. Today, it is time for us to wake up. There is perhaps no better weekend than the one in which we celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. – no better weekend to remind ourselves to heed Paul’s call to remember that we are bound together in Christ for a purpose. That we are bound together in Christ, with every spiritual gift we need and, because of this we have what we need to work alongside God. And more than simply recognizing the truth of this, we are living in a time when the Church has a responsibility to act on that truth – to proclaim with our lives what we profess with our lips - to stand up to and against the powers that threaten to tear us apart.
Our catechism tells us that the Church’s mission is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” by pursuing “its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.” We are living in a time when the Church is especially called to live fully into this mission. For when the ruler of any nation stands before his or her people and declares – by word or by action - that some people inherently have more dignity than others or when the ruler of any nation declares – by word or by action - that some groups of peoples because of their ethnicity, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, sexual identity or socio-economic status are to be served a justice that is no justice and a peace that is no peace, then the Church has an obligation to stand up to that ruler in the name of the traditional Christian values that we espouse – namely those values we profess at our baptism.
Now, because I have been speaking of the Church and some may hear that as me speaking of the small ‘c’ institutional church, I want to be clear that the Church of which I speak is the one which our catechism tells us is “the Body of which Jesus Christ is the Head and of which all baptized persons are members”– in other words, the Church of which I speak is us. And so we are the ones who must be vigilant and stand up – as often as it takes and for as long as it takes – to hold our leaders accountable, to shelter, comfort and protect those who are vulnerable, to serve Christ in all persons, to strive for justice and peace among all people, to respect the dignity of every human being. As Shay Craig, our preacher last week reminded us, this “means no exceptions.”
In our first reading today, the prophet Isaiah writes that he was called by God before he was born, while he was still in his mother’s womb. And yet, the prophet writes, he did not do God’s purpose, having spent his “strength for nothing and vanity.” And God replies, “maybe so, but today is the day. Today is the day that I remind you of the purpose for which I called you – to ‘give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’” 
My brothers and sisters, today is our moment. Today is the day. We may havmove those conversations into the community and into our world. We must join with our brothers and sisters across denominations and be the light that God has called us to be from before the beginning of time. Now – more than ever before in many of our life times – we must proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. And we need to get noticed. We need to get loud. We need to go out into the streets, into the public square. We need to stand before our elected representatives. We need to be the Church. We must be the Church together – bound together in Christ. And we can do this. Because we “are not lacking in any spiritual gift” and we have been “in every way. . . enriched in [Christ Jesus], in speech and knowledge of every kind.”
 1 Corinthians 1:2, 5, 7.
 J. Paul Sampley, “The First Letter to the Corinthians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume 10 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 777.
 Book of Common Prayer, 854-5.
 Ibid., 305.
 Isaiah 49:1b.
 Isaiah 49:4.
 Isaiah 49:6b.
 1 Corinthians 1:5, 7a.